CHICAGO (CBS) — Children from families who suffered from abuse and neglect are taken into custody by the state Department of Welfare with the promise of their safety. But a lawsuit filed Thursday disputes just how safe Illinois Department of Children and Family Services does keep some of the state’s most vulnerable children safe, CBS Chicago’s Chris Tye reports.
The suit tells the story of how the system left one girl locked up.
The same thing happened to dozens of other children who ended up behind bars despite never having done anything wrong, the lawsuit alleges.
Why did they end up there? The reason, according to the lawsuit, was that there were no places in the state to accommodate.
And now, Tai says, the victims have run out of patience.
“They don’t care about me,” said 18-year-old Jania Kane. “They don’t want to help me get out of this terrible place.”
The first “horrible place” Kane ended up in was the Cook County Juvenile Court.
Kane was a minor when she ended up in family court – a relative became violent. As a victim of child abuse, she was asked to tell the truth about her abuser in exchange for protection from DCFS.
“When I was told … ‘I’ll keep you safe,’ I expected you to keep me safe,” Kane said, “and I didn’t feel safe in that place.”
Kane then ended up in another “horrible place” – behind bars at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. Before it was over, she spent 166 nights there.
“Sometimes I even feel like they wanted me there because I’ve been there so long,” Kane said with disgust.
She didn’t do anything wrong. The reason she ended up in the detention center was because DCFS was out of beds, the lawsuit alleges.
“I don’t know,” Kane said. “It’s a lot of emotions and feelings that you go through — because nobody wants to be in that horrible place where you’re fighting girls.”
When she asked for time off to attend her grandmother’s funeral, her caseworker couldn’t be found – and she missed it.
“It took them so long to find my DCFS worker because no one knew where she was,” Kane said. “I felt terrible. I felt so many emotions like anger, sadness – because I loved her so much.”
This suit tells the story of Kane and eight other children who were illegally held in detention for anywhere from 45 days to six months.
Michael spent 45 days, David 86 days, Jordan 150 days, James 240 days, Kate more than three months, John five and a half months, Elliott more than six months and Thomas more than seven months, reports Tai.
As of Thursday evening, seven children were still locked up when they shouldn’t have been, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said. They spent more than 239 days behind bars despite having done nothing wrong, he said.
And this despite the fact that the judge decided to release the children to their guardians.
“They’re leaving their kids to rot in prison when the judge ordered them out,” Golbert said.
“If DCFS continues to pursue policies that harm children, then they will pay — and they will pay until they stop doing it and it never happens again to another child,” said attorney Russell Ainsworth.
Ainsworth said a jury will ultimately decide what the dollar amount should be, but the policy of locking up children costs hundreds of thousands more than providing adequate placement facilities.
“As we speak, placements are actually empty — because placements aren’t being paid enough to be fully staffed,” Golbert said.
Kane said the failures in the DCFS system run from the top down the line.
“They never do their job,” Kane said. “There were times when they left me — not just in prison, but in other horrible places where you’re mistreated and things like that.”
Kane is out of jail she wasn’t, and now hopes the lawsuit will change policy and improve the lives of future children.
“Everybody should be free there,” Kane said. “It could be about their lives — getting a job, doing something with their life instead of just sitting in jail.”
She hopes the lawsuit will bring about change and protect other children.
“I hope they don’t have to go through this, and the people after them don’t have to go through this,” Kane said.
Tye reached out to DCFS for comment on the lawsuit. The agency issued the following statement:
“The Department of Children and Family Services is working as quickly as possible to place youth in appropriate and safe settings. Of course, we can only place youth where we have the availability to meet their needs, so the department is also working to build capacity that was weakened under previous administrations. Through this work, we have made progress in recent years in reducing the number of young people who remain in the justice system after being granted release, and we are deeply committed to continued progress. We are unable to comment further due to pending litigation.”